Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Chess and Autism / Asperger’s Syndrome

By Al Pinto

I am a 44-year-old man living in Connecticut who just found out in 2005 that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Since I was five years old, I have seen dozens of therapists, counselors, pastors, and other “help professionals” to figure out what had been troubling me. Everyone knew there was something different about me: my parents, my teachers, my other relatives, and classmates. And I knew it too, but it was difficult to say exactly what. I seemed to be gifted yet at the same time handicapped in some way that was beyond anyone’s understanding.

Of all folks, my sister (who was a reading specialist in a public school system
at the time) figured it out. She had read an article on Asperger’s Syndrome and the bells started ringing. She talked to me one day about it in late 2004. I took the time to investigate on my own, and she was absolutely right! Several weeks later, in February 2005, we met with the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time. He said that I indeed had it, but it was a “very mild case”.

I can assure you that effects of it in my life were anything but mild.

Although I had won a prestigious scholarship to Northeastern University in Boston in the 80s, and graduated with high honors with a degree in Computer Science, I was ill equipped to deal with the politics and the interpersonal landmines of the business world. I changed jobs and apartments often. I tried a geographical cure once, moving to Cincinnati for seven months in the mid 90s. I’ve had two broken engagements, and have never been married or have any children. I even went back to school and tried changing my career to architectural CADD consulting for a while, only to switch back to Information Technology. I had been hospitalized several times for depression. But the depression wasn’t medical; it was the result of trying to be a round peg in a square hole.

Throughout my life, I noticed that a certain type of person was drawn to me, like a magnet. I now know that these people were folks on the autism spectrum. Quite a few of these people were worse off than I was and admired me for my ability to cope with the world. All these trials, failures, and experiences have shown me how to adapt to the world in ways that at least allow me to live an independent, functional lifestyle. I know that a large majority of folks on the autism spectrum can’t even do as much. I give credit to God for getting me to where I am, and for arranging the circumstances in my life to do as well as I am. Even to this day, my closest friends have always had some kind of autistic traits.

I had to come to the realization that I had a calling on my life, given to me by God Himself.

This calling is to share my knowledge and experiences with other “Aspies” to help them find their own way. I have come to believe we create 90% of our own suffering. We do this by resisting our destiny, by fighting the reality of who we are. The cult of personality, which is so prevalent in America, says that we can be whoever we want to be. This is a lie. It's true that we can do whatever we want to do, but if what we do goes against the grain of who we are, we are setting ourselves up for a miserable life. I know several people who have bought into this, and are living their "dream", but are unhappy, stressed out, and in ill-health.

My problem was that I had been fighting this all my life, in the attempt to be “normal”, to live up to the expectations my family and my teachers had put on me. In other words, trying to be the round peg in the square hole. Therefore, I wasn’t open to God’s purpose in my life. I wanted to be like everyone else, so I eschewed anything “geeky” during my college and young adult years. This was the path that I was on. My upbringing taught me that I was gifted, and that using my gift for anything else than chasing the "American Dream" would be a tragic waste. Instead I wound up chasing something that turned out to be a mirage, and wasted almost my entire youth doing so.

Once I realized this, I discovered the way to real happiness and fulfillment.

In 2000, I started to become extremely interested in chess. This interest was provoked by Susan Polgar, a Hungarian-American who was the first woman ever to win the men’s grandmaster title. She was trying to get more females involved in chess. This revived an interest I already had since I was 11, when I first learned how to play. As a youngster, I didn’t have the patience for it, so I forgot about it until college, when the musical “Chess” became popular. After a short while my interest waned again. Part of the problem was that chess, particularly in America, had become associated with the likes of Bobby Fischer, who I am convinced had Asperger’s or some other form of autism.

I have come to the realization that many folks who play chess at a competitive level are “my kind of people”. So, over the last two years, I’ve been studying the game in earnest during my off-hours. That is how I met Don, a marriage & family therapist, and Spencer, his 6-year-old son. Don saw my flyer in the local Starbucks for a chess club that I was trying to get started. I had also offered to give lessons to beginners. Don called and asked if I would be interested in giving Spencer lessons.

I have reached the next step in my journey. Spencer has been studying with me for about two years now, and I've had the opportunity to teach other people, including another student of mine, Beverly, who is a 70-something lady whose skill at bridge is translating well into proficiency in chess. Things seem to be going rather well, despite the occasional setback. I truly feel the hand of God in this situation, because everything is falling into place, without having to be forced, like many other things that I’ve tried (and failed at) in my life. My long-term goal is to become a mentor to other “Aspies”. Since I enjoy chess, and find it character building, what better way to connect with these folks?

Special thanks to Brother Al for sharing this with us.


  1. Why does an 80 year old man weep through a story like this? Been there done that? Be of good cheer friends. Most administrators and teachers agree, but many have little vision (why are they in education), but they just do not know HOW to promote and 'make room' for chess . . .when it is so simple. "Knights of the South Bronx" was more than a non-fictional film and they should see it.
    Thanks Susan. The Chessnut

  2. Why am I doing this? I promote chess from the Pacific to Pine Ridge out of pocket primarily in WA, ID, MT, ND,UT, NV, OR and now Northern, CA. I am swamped. Take valuable time to respond to the above article and am put on " . . .after approval.) hold? Have a good week.